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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Spring 2005 : Massive Change

Massive Change:
The Future of Global Design

It’s not about the world of design; it ’s about the design of the world.

by Doug Chapman

“Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”

It’s hard to imagine a more ambitious beginning to a design exhibition than this enigmatic question. Yet this is the initial statement and call to action of “Massive Change: The Future of Global Design,” an internationally touring gallery exhibition showcasing some of the world’s hottest technologies and visionary thinking.

Created by Bruce Mau Design and the Institute without Boundaries, and commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery, “Massive Change” offers a whirlwind tour of human achievement in almost every conceivable realm—from bicycle-powered water purification systems for the developing world, to the U.S. military’s most advanced armored soldier technology; from consideration of the City as humankind’s greatest design achievement and an economic plan that could bring more than nine trillion dollars in capital to the developing world, to chickens bred without feathers and a prosthetic human nose made of stem cell-generated human tissue. “Massive Change” ties all this and more together as evidence of our ever-increasing capacity to shape the world for the better through intentioned actions called Design.

According to Bruce Mau, “Massive Change” embodies the thesis that “design has placed us at the beginning of a new, unprecedented period of human possibility, where all economies and ecologies are becoming global, relational and interconnected. In order to understand these emerging forces, there is an urgent need to articulate precisely what we are doing to ourselves and to our world.” This articulation is the prime achievement of “Massive Change,” a project that not only takes the form of a 20,000-square-foot gallery exhibition, but also a book published by Phaidon Press, a talk radio program hosted by Jennifer Leonard, a resource-rich Website ( and a speaker series co-moderated by Bruce Mau and Charlie Rose. Using an energetic visual style usually reserved for high-production film or art and culture magazines, ”Massive Change” achieves a rare blend of emotional impact, intellectual weight and political edge.

While Bruce Mau may be a relative unknown in ecologically sustainable design circles, he is recognized in the design world as the groundbreaking graphic designer whose work with Zone Books redefined the relationship between visual form and intellectual content in academic and art publishing. His book “SMLXL,” written and produced with Rem Koolhaas, is considered a classic, and “Lifestyle,” Mau’s manifesto on contemporary culture and his studio’s design process, is sure to follow. Now, with “Massive Change,” Mau focuses his creative vision on the larger issues of ecological and social equity in the global commons, entering into conversation with the world’s leading visionaries, including scientists, military historians, avant-garde economists, environmentalists and advanced technology designers, to name just a few.

Collaborating with graduate students at the Institute without Boundaries, a one-year design residency program within the Bruce Mau Design Studio, Mau developed the thesis of “Massive Change” after reading L.B. Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, which quotes historian Arnold Toynbee: “The 20th century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.” To the “Massive Change” authors, the phrase “practical objective” brings this historical statement out of the realm of academics and into the arena of design. And, Mau adds, we are now in a position to evolve that statement for the 21st century, striving not only for the welfare of the human race, but of all species. If “Massive Change“ is one thing, it is a celebration of designs and intentioned strategies that are making Toynbee’s vision a reality.

And while this thesis may seem completely in line with traditional notions of ecologically sustainable design, “Massive Change” is not your father’s eco-exposition or a rehashing of established and essential sustainable design concepts. This is evident when you consider the breadth of issues discussed in the 11 “design economies” that comprise the exhibition’s core content. Each economy describes one relatively distinct realm of human activity and carries an explanatory ambition-statement (see sidebar).

Familiar design strategies discussed include renewable energy, cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, Biomimicry, socially responsible investing, and consideration of Curritiba, Brazil, as a model urban environment. But the project then delves into less familiar ground: The Information Economy explores our ability to map and design visual representations of global data ranging from the sprawling Internet to world climate and weather patterns. The Image Economy highlights the current mega-proliferation of scientific and consumer imaging technologies, showcasing the work of a group of human rights activists who use digital photography and video to document abuse around the world and prosecute offenders in courts of law.

Perhaps the most incongruous inclusion in “Massive Change,” a project about positive change, is the Military Economy. As the “Massive Change“ authors recognize, “For better and worse, the military project is one of the most powerful engines of technological innovation and design. From the microwave oven to space exploration, from civilian aviation to the Internet, the military (and in particular the U.S. military) has fed the process of design. Indeed it is impossible to consider our global future without considering the impacts of the Military Economy, both its capacity for madness and its capacity for action on a global scale.”

At the end of the day, the summation of the “Massive Change“ economies could be called the economy of hope. Yes, the world is full of challenges—war, poverty and environmental degradation—but there is also profoundly positive work happening around the world and at all economic levels. “Massive Change” shows a link between incredible achievements in wheelchair design for first-world citizens and efforts to bring clean water to the developing world. One is not considered more culturally valuable than the other; they are both practically oriented, born out of love for humanity, and fundamental to creating an equitable and sustainable world for all. This represents an integrative vision that combines traditional ecological design wisdom with the best design thinking in the world, regardless of explicit sustainable aims.

Another aspect of what makes “Massive Change” different is how the message is brought to the public. While from a curatorial perspective “Massive Change“ takes aesthetics off the table, overtly choosing to exhibit designs based on their capacity for change-making rather than what they look like, visual presentation and aesthetics come into play full-force in telling the story. The exhibition is an immersive gallery experience that combines the content-driven intent of a science museum with an edgy delivery inspired by multimedia installation art, creating communication that is accessible and exciting, both emotionally and intellectually. The “Massive Change“ book is part visionary engineering catalog, part cultural theory text and part monograph, and would be at home on the reading list of a college course on sustainability or as a case study in graphic innovation.

The resulting project reaches a broad audience and produces a fresh perspective on what an ecologically sustainable and globally equitable future could look and feel like as a dynamic cultural experience. Suddenly, even the culturally chic SoHo aesthetic design purists, whose notion of sustainability is confined to recycled tire handbags and hemp yoga clothes, are paying close attention to the thesis that design is always an ethically engaged practice. More than this, “Massive Change” brings the visual and graphic arts community, the military, genetic bio-ethicists, social and free-market economists, environmentalists and others together in a single, non-partisan discussion in which everyone is free to use the strength of their discipline to bring about change. The criteria for admission into this league of “designers” is not strictly aesthetic or ecological, but effective agency for the greater good.

According to Mau, “The reality for advanced design today is dominated by three ideas: It’s distributed, plural and collaborative. It is no longer about one designer, one client, one solution, one place. Problems are taken up everywhere; solutions are developed, tested and contributed to the global commons. The effect of this is to imagine a future for design that is both modest and ambitious. Modest in the sense that we take our place in what Bill Buxton calls ‘the Renaissance Team’—a group that collectively develops the capacity to deal with the demands of a given project. Ambitious in that we take our place in society, willing to implicate ourselves in the consequences of our imagination.” “Massive Change” demonstrates that human society has the capacity and global wealth to change the world in positive and tangible ways. The question it leaves us with is, will we?

“Massive Change: the Future of Global Design” opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario March 11. International tour dates are in development. The book “Massive Change,” published by Phaidon Press, is available through booksellers everywhere.
Author Bio:
Doug Chapman is a freelance writer and an associate with Work Worth Doing, a Toronto-based company dedicated to initiating, designing and championing solutions to social and environmental challenges. As a graduate of the Institute without Boundaries 2004, Chapman is a co-author of “Massive Change.” His e-mail address is

Massive Change Design Economies
An economy is a system of exchange. We explore paradigm-shifting events, ideas and people, investigating the capacities and ethical dilemmas of design in such systems as:

Create urban shelter for the entire world

Enable sustainable mobility


Build a global mind

The Image
Make visible the as yet invisible


Seamlessly integrate all supply and demand around the world

Bring energy to the entire world

Build intelligence into materials and liberate form from matter

Shift from the service of war to the service of life

Eliminate the need for raw material and banish all waste

Design evolution

Wealth & Politics
Eradicate poverty

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